March 1, 2012

Scott’s antarctic expedition

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , at 7:20 am by Susan

The story of Scott’s tragic journey to reach the South Pole ahead of his Norwegian rival is well known. It’s a tale of personal ambition and national pride, of grim courage and extraordinary endurance, of ill luck and wrong decisions – and of stubborn, almost foolhardy, determination. The writings of those who died on that journey – Dr Wilson, Lieutenant Bowers, Captain Oates, Petty Officer Edgar Evans, Captain Scott himself – have inspired countless retellings, both factual and imagined. But at an exhibition at the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge this month there is chance to view the diaries and letters of other, less famous members of the sixty-five man expedition, together with their photographs, maps, drawings and workbooks.

It is an extraordinary insight into that ill-fated mission. While the questions still remain (why did Scott decide to ship ponies instead of dogs to pull his sledges? why, at the last moment, did he add an extra man to his team for whom there were no skis and no supplies), these writings tell a more human story: one of ordinary daily life with its humdrum rituals; the solace of camaraderie; satisfaction in a work task accomplished; the contentment that comes when basic needs of warmth, food and shelter are met.

Many of the items in the exhibition have never been shown to the public before and many (according to the Institute’s website) are unlikely to be displayed again this century. It’s not difficult to see why. The items are at risk of deterioration. Most of the diaries and letters are handwritten and the ink is fading. The artifacts – which include a decorated ‘tree’ for a Christmas feast and paper menus in the shape of penguins – are hand-made from fragile materials. There is a wonderful comic (with articles, poems and cartoons) produced by the six men on the ‘Northern Party’ who were trapped for twenty-one months in a cave they dug themselves in the Antarctic ice, its pages smudged with smoke from the blubber stove that kept them alive. Some of the maps and papers showing column after column of precisely recorded data look as if they were executed in pencil.

This is a rare opportunity to discover the fuller story of Scott’s legendary quest. As Scott said in one of his final letters ‘these rough notes… must tell the tale’. They are a testament to the sixty-five men who voyaged on that three-year long expedition, as well as to the importance of recording and preserving the stories of all our lives.

The exhibition is at the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge and runs until 5th May. Admission is free.

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June 28, 2009

Public and private

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , at 4:17 pm by Susan

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This month took me to New York for the US launch of Vanessa and Virginia. While I was there I contributed to a round table discussion about Virginia Woolf. The other panelists included Ruth Gruber, who wrote the first Ph. D. on Virginia Woolf in the 1930s. Ruth (now 97) described tea with Virginia and Leonard Woolf in their London home one afternoon in October 1935.

Virginia, she told us, was lying on a sofa, wearing a soft grey dress, and smoking a cigarette. Her hair was cut short in a bob. She said little as Leonard attended to the courtesies of pouring and passing tea, only becoming involved in the conversation when Ruth recounted a recent visit to Germany. The tea ended civilly, and was followed by a brief – and polite – exchange of letters.

Years later, Ruth read an account of herself in Virginia Woolf’s published correspondence, a puzzling, unflattering report, which did not correspond to her memory of their meeting, or the tone of the letters they exchanged. I think everyone listening to Ruth felt outraged on her behalf at this apparent betrayal.

Most of us won’t ever see our private thoughts published. If we did, we might have to reflect further on the disjunction between what we say and do in public, and the way we behave when the world isn’t looking. We like to assume we are straightforward, uncomplicated beings who rarely change our minds or contradict ourselves, yet a moment’s honest self-scrutiny reveals just the opposite.

Woolf herself was aware of the dichotomy. ‘We’re splinters & mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes’, she wrote in her diary. She went on to imagine a form of writing that might encompass these ‘human dimensions’.

Perhaps, if we had more of the kind of writing Woolf envisaged, instead of the self-congratulatory memoirs tending to fill bookstores today, we might find it easier to accept that our icons also have feet of clay.